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Over the past few months NAWL has reviewed the issue of federal electoral reform, and how changes to the current federal system may facilitate a shift in the policy priorities of the Canadian Parliament.
NAWL is committed to advancing the policy document of the Canadian Women’s March Committee, It’s Time for Change: 68 Demands to the Federal Government to End Poverty and Violence Against Women. Few of the policy recommendations promoted by the women’s movement were implemented by the federal government since the World March of Women in October 2000.
The lack of response to It’s Time for Change by key decision-makers and elected representatives at bureaucratic and Parliamentary levels highlights the contemporary political limitations of Canadian feminist organizations.
Though many of the achievements of second wave feminism in Canada have relied upon women successfully pressuring multiple access points within the legislative, bureaucratic and judicial structures of the federal state, the boundaries of legitimized political discussion have since shifted to exclude many equality-seeking women and their policy priorities. The women’s movement is not regarded as constituting as significant a political threat as it once did. At the same time, national feminists are at odds with many of the policies and programs in which there is an increase of the state’s role as a primary apparatus for market economies. Given this scenario, it is very unlikely that the rich legacy and ongoing practices of activism by diverse communities of feminist women will translate into concrete action from the Canadian Parliament without a direct challenge to our political system.
To address this phenomenon, NAWL examined three mechanisms for political reform in Canada: the establishment of a feminist political party, the implementation of legislated gender parity within the existing parties and the establishment of proportional representation within the federal electoral system. The examination of these options revealed the severe limitations of the federal riding system in Canada that is currently based on single member plurality constituencies, in which the candidate with the majority of the vote wins. This system discourages political parties from taking risks with less conventional candidates, such as grassroots activist women or women of colour, who may not have either the financial backing or ‘established’ networks to run a competitive campaign in which winner takes all.
As a result, many women are excluded from the formal political process at the nomination level. In fact, the number of women who have been successful in contesting nationwide constituency nominations has declined over the past decades.
Single member plurality districts also prevent the aggregation of interests that transcend geographic or party alignments. The success of a Feminist Party in Canada electing any members is highly unlikely given that popular support would not be sufficiently concentrated in any one riding to allow for a majority vote win.
Given this scenario, NAWL researched the adoption of a mixed member system. In this system voters would continue to elect a Member of Parliament for each constituency but additional seats would be distributed to parties according to the percentage of the national popular vote they attained. These seats would be filled according to a list system. Parties would prioritize individuals for office on the list who may not be successful via the current election route. These individuals would fill the extra seats. This one modification to the electoral system could eliminate the profound barriers to Parliamentary representation that single member plurality districts perpetuate.
NAWL also examined other national legislatures to determine whether the presence of greater numbers of women impacted policy choices. We discovered the increased presence of mostly feminist women facilitates significant changes in political culture, promoting women’s participation in policy-making and legitimizing the experiences they bring to the legislature.
In most instances, however, this cannot happen without a critical mass of female members, which the United Nations has designated to be a minimum of 30% of any elected body. There has been a close analysis of Norway’s legislature since provisions were made to increase the number of women in office. In addition to changing Norway’s legislative culture, female representatives have occasionally formed cross-party coalitions to advance the interests of women’s equality. In doing so, women were able to call upon ‘a mandate of difference’ or equality as a necessary rationale for transcending party or geographic allegiances.
In Canada, the existence of such multi-party coalitions of women have been impeded by the few numbers of women in Parliament and the severe party discipline elected Members confront. When female representatives have formed a coalition, as they did during the Mulroney government in 1989 when a Status of Women subcommittee was formed, they can successfully force action that might not otherwise be taken. The efforts and consensus reached by this all-women sub-committee resulted in the establishment of a National Taskforce on Violence against Women. Electoral reform would increase the possibilities for such collaboration among elected women with feminist policy priorities, many of whom are severely impeded from doing so at present.
Electoral reform is not marginal to political discussions in Canada. Given successive federal governments’ inaction on the recommendations of the Royal Commission on Electoral Reform and Party Financing released in 1991, many organizations in civil society are beginning to seriously examine the possibilities for electoral reform.
In May of 2001 Fair Vote Canada, a national advocacy group, was established to facilitate a citizens’ dialogue on the issue. The Institute for Research in Public Policy also held a national conference on Proportional Representation during the same month. Various labour unions are in the process of considering resolutions on proportional representation. Judy Rebick, former president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, has published a book, Imagine Democracy, on the subject.
As electoral reform appears to be on the verge of gaining some very real momentum, it is critical that equality-seeking women and organizations are central to the discussion. Women have a lot to gain from a reformed political system, but without sustained mobilization, any reforms may not explicitly include their interests.
For a copy of NAWL’s discussion paper, Pursuing a Feminist policy Agenda through Electoral Reform, please visit http://nawl.ca